James H. Mills
London, St Martin's Press, 2000
Date accessed: 9 December, 2023
In Madness, Cannabis and Colonialism, James H. Mills examines the lunatic asylums of colonial India, between the war of 1857 and the end of the nineteenth century. Throughout this period, the total number of mental patients in the country did not exceed five thousand at any given time. By any standard, then, the incarceration of the mentally ill in British India would appear to have been a small, low-priority effort. The crude but justifiable question therefore arises, is the study of colonial madness worth the time that it takes to write a two-hundred-page monograph? Mills does well to answer the question - in the affirmative, of course - early in his book. He is, I think, quite right. The study of mental asylums in India in this period is not simply about a few thousand unfortunates who were locked away in a new type of colonial institution. It is a critically important part of the much broader study of disciplinary techniques, discourses and institutions, in a social and political context in which these imperatives were pursued with vigour, imagination, and moderate success.
By taking on insanity, Mills adds a dimension that has not been adequately explored in recent studies of colonial institutions of medicine and punishment in the second half of the nineteenth century: clinics, lock hospitals, prisons, penal colonies, schools and reformatories. These studies - by David Arnold, Philippa Levine and others - all argue, although not identically, that discipline, incarceration and medical intervention in nineteenth-century India were fundamentally implicated in the British effort to create a more governable colonial society. It is quite clear from these studies that the disciplining impulse was not especially limited in its scale or its ambition. If we add Mills' lunatics to the women who were targeted under the Contagious Diseases Act, the peripatetic societies that were shepherded into labour camps under the Criminal Tribes Acts, the murderers and dacoits who were transported to the Andaman Islands, and men and women who were forcibly vaccinated or subjected to anti-epidemic measures, we end up with a respectable segment of the colonised population. Placed in this larger context, a few thousand lunatics and their keepers become eminently worthwhile subjects of analysis, and a rich - if sometimes vexing - source of insight into the colonial experience.
Reliable sources of information are inevitably at a premium in studies of incarcerated populations in colonial India. The overwhelming majority of those who entered nineteenth-century mental asylums in India were non-literate. As such, if their voices are to be isolated, the subaltern must "speak" through the medium of the colonial state. Yet, as Mills notes, colonial records of mental illness tend to be highly unreliable, especially if the researcher blunders into attempting to answer the question: were the inmates really "mad"? For one thing, there was little unanimity among mental health professionals in India regarding the basic vocabulary of madness: the same diagnosis, made in two different asylums, could describe two different sets of symptoms. For another thing, and perhaps obviously, the language of diagnosis - today, as in the nineteenth century - is not "objective" and "innocent," but deeply implicated in strategies of political power. Mills rightly eschews any effort to diagnose asylum inmates retroactively by applying late-twentieth century psychiatric concepts, or by arguing that the colonial insane were simply misunderstood. He chooses, instead, to "diagnose" the doctors and administrators who ran the asylums and the political priorities that shaped the records and the case studies that make up the asylum archive. He proceeds, then, from the assumption that the asylum archive is valuable to the historian precisely because it is unreliable as "medical evidence," and because it reveals a great deal about colonial imaginations of India. Mills' argument regarding the construction of madness in colonial India is that it was rooted in the "native" body, in behaviour that was politically transgressive, and in the refusal to work. The first assertion is especially interesting, since Mills ties it firmly to the colonial sciences of race, especially phrenology and the autopsy, that sought to explore, measure, and classify the colonised body and that constructed it as fundamentally different from the body of the coloniser. Mills demonstrates, convincingly, that the symptoms of "madness" that were recorded in the colonial asylum were overwhelmingly physical, rather than mental: the asylum doctors chose to focus on details such as the patient's weight, bowel functions, and the colour and consistency of the brain upon the inmate's death. Mills then proceeds to historicise this apparent anomaly, by pointing out that the doctors who ran Indian asylums were, for the most part, physicians extemporising as specialists in mental health, engaged in the project of claiming the field of mental health for the medical profession.
Interesting as this section of the book is, it is disappointing in that Mills does not explore the politics of the autopsy in colonial India. Arnold has touched upon that issue in the context of Indian teaching hospitals, but the subject is far from exhausted. Mills - who is very aware of the role of asylums and prisons as sources of knowledge, and who points out that such institutions became bastions of medical power long before medicine became a hegemonic discourse in the wider colonial society - would have done well to discuss the political implications of conducting autopsies on the bodies of the incarcerated.
The politics of labour, on the other hand, feature centrally in Mills' analysis. It is apparent from his analysis that like criminality, insanity in colonial India had a great deal to do with the individual's refusal to perform those forms of labour that were approved by the state. There is little evidence that labour structured asylum regimes to the extent that it did prison regimes in British India. Nevertheless, Mills argues that irregular, peripatetic, and "unproductive" occupations led to the asylum, as they did to the prison. He further complicates the relationship between work and incarceration by pointing out that colonial prison regimes were closely tied to production and profit, in which those unable or unwilling to work were viewed as especially disruptive and worthless. These unwanted prisoners were frequently classified as mad and transferred to asylums, where their perceived aversion to labour would be further observed, recorded, and utilised to reinforce the diagnosis of insanity. Conversely, the "resumption" of labour by asylum inmates was equated with the recovery of their minds and bodies. In one particularly interesting example that Mills provides, a prostitute who was detained at a mental asylum for five years was discharged promptly when she indicated to the superintendent that she was ready to resume her profession! Mills observes, quite correctly, that this connection between work, madness, and recovery was an integral part of the colonial project of reforming the Indian, by correcting his innate laziness (and the unproductive condition of his society) even as it corrected his defective body and mind.
The diagnostic value of labour remains in focus when Mills discusses the peculiar place of cannabis in the colonial discourse of madness. This is, in some ways, the most intriguing section of the book, because Mills does an excellent job of demonstrating the development of the cultural and medical mythology of a drug, and of tracing the emerging intersections of knowledge, institutions, and policy. He shows, for instance, that cannabis hardly registered in the metropolitan British consciousness for most of the nineteenth century. When it did, beginning in the 1870s, the asylums of India played the leading role in generating the knowledge that was then transmitted to England, for debates in the press and in the government. Among its other merits, the discussion of cannabis in the context of Indian madness adds to the growing body of scholarship that seeks to demolish the remarkably resilient separation between "British" and "empire."
Mills shows that in the first half of the nineteenth century, British observers were vaguely aware of hemp as a substance that Indians used recreationally as well as medicinally. In the 1830s, British scientists in Calcutta carried out experiments with cannabis (which included exposing a dog to the drug, and recording that its face "assumed a look of utter helpless drunkenness"), but attached no great moral or medical opprobrium to its effects. The discourse of ganja as a "dangerous" drug began to emerge in 1871, when the colonial government decided to survey its officers on the effects of hemp. The information that now emerged came from administrators with political anxieties about Indians who used the drug, and from asylums, where the drug was increasingly viewed as both a cause and a symptom of insanity. By 1873, Mills shows, cannabis was being linked in India to sexual immorality, infanticide, suicide, chronic indolence, violent and disorderly behaviour, explicitly political offences such as attacks on Christians and, retroactively, the rebellion of 1857. By 1880, this discourse had spread to British medical journals like The Lancet. It became the subject of parliamentary hearings in 1890, and various legal restrictions on the use and sale of cannabis were simultaneously introduced in India.
Mills' analysis of the production of knowledge about cannabis in the colonial asylum is quite outstanding. He shows, for instance, how cannabis use came to be grounded in the body of the incarcerated inmate: in physical stigmata such as emaciation, "a peculiar leery look which, when once seen, is unmistakable," discoloration of the lips, "loss of vital energy," and the "ganja-corn" (an apparently distinctive callus on the marijuana-smoker's finger). He shows, also, how extremely brittle was the actual evidence for the use of hemp by individual mental patients, and how unpredictable local factors would determine just when, where, and how the "meta-narrative preoccupations" of madness and discipline would be deployed. Policemen would identify cannabis users on the basis of pure hearsay, or simply surmise that individuals "looked," "acted," or "lived" like users of the drug. This would suffice to commit people to the asylum. Following this, in a circular process, the inmate's status as mad and the medical gaze would reinforce the "fact" that he used hemp, underline the connection between madness and cannabis, and generate official policy regarding the drug.
For all its insights, there is an incompleteness about Mills' discussion of cannabis. The subject is tackled early in the volume, and then dropped almost entirely: a strategy that does not do justice to the title of the book, or to the reader's expectations. It is not as if there is nothing more to say about cannabis in this context. Mills would have done well to place the nineteenth-century discourse of cannabis alongside the temperance crusades in Britain and its colonies; the themes of physical/mental/moral degeneration and crime would seem to apply in both cases, as would issues of gender and class. There is little discussion of class in Mills' discussion of cannabis: he does not tell us, for instance, whether the use of the drug was connected to particular social strata, or whether the British disdain for cannabis users had parallels in the attitudes of élite Indians.
To be fair, it must be conceded that gender, class, and the native voice are very much present in Mills' larger discussion of madness. He indicates, for instance, that what cannabis use was to male lunatics, reproduction was to women who entered the colonial asylum. Madness in women - in colonial India as in contemporary Europe - was most often rooted in the womb. Mills notes, perceptively, that this association generated a certain sympathy on the part of colonial administrators for women who killed their babies. Infanticide was, by far, the commonest crime for which women were sentenced to long terms of imprisonment or penal transportation in British India; nevertheless, jailers and asylum directors alike wrote of the women as victims of their bodies (and of Indian society), rather than as murderers.
Native voices appear in multiple capacities in Mills' study. These establish the indigenous discourse of insanity, which saw madness in terms of an externally imposed affliction. Mills places this discourse alongside the late-nineteenth-century British view of madness as an internal disorder of the lunatic's body; he does not, however, explore British responses to the indigenous model, or discuss the European discourse of spirit-possession. In other words, there is no evidence in the book of an attempt to develop a dialogue between the two "systems" of madness and its treatment.
Nevertheless, the native voices in Mills' analysis establish the reasons why Indians sometimes committed themselves to the asylum, or had their own relatives committed, without accepting the legitimacy of the colonial vision of mental illness. Most importantly, the Indian voices in this volume establish the prevalence of resistance in the lunatic asylum: inmates refused to work, refused food, masturbated, engaged in sexual intercourse, violated segregation rules, insulted the doctors, physically assaulted the staff, ran away, and not infrequently, committed suicide.
Mills offers three especially illuminating insights on resistance in the colonial asylum. One is that the asylum, like the colonial prison, was the site of a protracted political struggle between the coloniser and the colonised, in which the line between "treatment" and "punishment" frequently disappeared. In one gruesome but apparently unexceptional example, an asylum superintendent describes how he blistered and then sewed patients' genitalia to dissuade them from masturbating. Oddly, Mills has nothing to say about electroshock therapy, which developed somewhat later than the period he studies, but which was used as punishment as well as treatment for prisoners suspected of faking madness in British-Indian prisons in the 1920s. Nevertheless, Mills diverges sharply from the approach of Sridhar Sharma and Waltraud Ernst, both of whom have argued that mental asylums were little more than holding pens, where aggressive treatment of the insane was conspicuous only by its absence.
A second insight is that to some extent, madness and the asylum functioned as shelters from which Indians could resist colonial power. Unlike an Indian who was perceived to be sane, a madman had the privilege of openly abusing a colonial administrator, and then laughing at the latter's discomfort. At the same time, the marginal status of the insane allowed the British to depoliticise their resistance, by depicting it as irrational and meaningless.
The third, and most significant, point that Mills makes is that it is counterproductive to see Indian responses to the colonial asylum in terms of resistance alone. Some observers of state medicine and incarceration in colonial India - notably Arnold and Harrison - have tended to characterise the Indian response to these new colonial regimes as either resistance or indifference. Mills shows that inmates, and the Indians who actually staffed colonial asylums, also saw psychiatric institutions as resources that they could utilise for their own ends: as career opportunities, as shelters where they could build vital social ties or seek refuge in times of personal crisis (Mills cites the example of one woman who committed herself after her husband died, leaving her destitute), as places where they might escape the harsher discipline of prison regimes, and as receptacles where they could dispose of troublesome family members. To access these advantages, inmates in colonial mental asylums co-operated with British doctors and administrators; their co-operation, however, was driven by agendas that were substantially autonomous of the colonial state.
All things considered, Mills' work is based on excellent research and innovative analysis, and is a valuable addition to the existing body of scholarship on so-called "total institutions" in colonial India. The point has been made, most forcefully by Arnold, that there was nothing "total" about the hospitals, prisons, and their cousins in British India: that the disciplining project was essentially a failure. Mills accepts the idea that colonial carceral institutions were far from Foucauldian/Benthamite models of perfect control. Nevertheless, he points out, these were places where the disciplining project was energetically attempted, and where, sporadically and for all the "wrong" reasons, incarcerated Indians did co-operate in their incarceration. The exploration - and the recognition - of this coexistent co-operation and resistance is essential to understanding the relationship between state and society in colonial India, where power existed not only to coerce, but to be co-opted.
Madness, Cannabis and Colonialism is valuable, also, because it draws attention to the extraordinary efforts that were made in India in the decades after the Mutiny to develop intrusive and coercive systems of control. This, after all, was the period when the Contagious Diseases Act, the Cantonments Act, the Female Infanticide Act, and the first Criminal Tribes Act were all passed, the Andaman Islands penal colony was established, and vigorous measures were undertaken for the management and recovery of populations that were seen as being out of control. Mills demonstrates that the rebellion of 1857 did not panic the colonial state into setting aside the agenda of social reform. Rather, the state withdrew from the project of reforming the Indian élites, and turned its attention to the vagrants, the thieves, the prostitutes, and the diseased. After 1857, the agenda of "knowing" and exposing the hidden recesses of India - not only the native family, the wandering tribe, the zenana, and the brothel, but also the native body and the native mind - became, if anything, a more urgent political concern.
I am very grateful to Professor Sen for his detailed analysis of Madness, Cannabis and Colonialism and for identifying the weaknesses and absences in the book. It is especially interesting to have a series of responses from Satadru Sen as his Disciplining Punishment: colonialism and convict society in the Andaman Islands (Oxford University Press Delhi 2000) had as its central concern another element of the British system of social control and discipline, that of the Andamans prison regime. As such, his reflections on the lunatic asylums of British India are very much based on a thorough knowledge of colonial operations after 1857 and are written from within the range of theoretical perspectives that he has developed for analysing their effectiveness and for exploring Indian responses.
He is correct to locate the lunatic asylums within the larger systems of colonialism in the latter half of the nineteenth century. In the prisons, as in the lock hospitals, the regiments or the schools, many of the British officers in the institutions for those that they deemed mentally ill shared a broad vision of the way that they wanted Indians to be. These officers organised all of these various institutions along lines that they thought would transform those in their power from what they perceived to be disobedient, inefficient and disorderly individuals into those that would of their own accord regulate their functioning so as to make the Empire smooth running and productive. These officers then judged those under their command with reference to these objectives of transformation, so that 'recovery' from criminality, illness, insubordination or insanity was indicated by the ability to demonstrate obedience, efficiency and productivity.
Among the techniques that the British used to attempt to effect these transformations was electro-convulsive therapy (ECT) which Professor Sen correctly points out is neglected in this study. ECT seems to have been little used in the mental hospitals of the nineteenth century although there is evidence that medical officers were aware of the disciplinary possibilities of the 'treatment' in the prisons at a much earlier stage than Professor Sen imagines. Talking of attempts by prisoners to feign mental illness to escape the rigours of prison life, Surgeon-General Whitwell commented in an article published in 1894 in the Indian Medical Gazette that any such attempt 'is, as a rule, brought to a premature conclusion after a few minutes acquaintance with the interrupted current'.1 The success of British officers in effecting these transformations is another matter altogether. Professor Sen is right to draw out the fact that there was often resistance or indifference to temper the outcomes but that it was also the Indian responses of compliance and cooperation that ensured success where it did occur. The lunatic asylums, as with the prisons studied by Professor Sen, were staffed by Indians and were filled with Indians and the European presence was limited in the extreme. As such compliance and cooperation were absolutely necessary for the correct functioning of colonial systems. I am pleased that Professor Sen felt it necessary to dwell on the point made in 'Madness, Cannabis and Colonialism' that it is crucial to explore the agendas of those that did comply and that did ensure the smooth-running of British institutions. It must never be assumed that such people were 'forced' to comply and that their cooperation was the result of the successful operations of colonial power. Rather, their reasons for working with the British and for working towards the objectives of the colonisers must be seen as active engagement with new opportunities for well-thought out reasons that originated in their own autonomously arrived at agendas. In other words it must never be taken for granted that their work with the British was the result of subjection or forced collaboration. It is a shame that Professor Sen did not engage with the conclusion of the book in more detail, as it begins to consider what 'madness' can tell the historian about the autonomy and about the agency of individuals. This discussion shows how individuals even in the midst of such a colonial and disciplinary institution as the asylum can be driven by agendas that take no account of the systems and the power of the coloniser.
Professor Sen is most critical of the book when he looks at its treatment of the generation of colonial knowledge at the asylums. While he agrees with my approaches and is enthusiastic about the subjects that I trace he flags up a number of instances where he feels that I have not gone far enough in my investigations. To a certain extent I agree with him on this and can offer correctives. His criticism that the discussion of the cannabis debates and statistics is 'incomplete' is valid in as much as there is a much larger story to be told here. However I necessarily had to limit the extent to which I explored this in the volume under discussion as the book had as its focus the mental hospitals of India rather than the government scares about cannabis users. The aspect of the cannabis issue that I focused on was therefore that which directly involved the asylums and I feel that I thoroughly demonstrated that the institution was the source of these scares as it provided knowledge about an apparently dangerous class of drug user and translated anxieties about such a dangerous class into statistics. The latter guaranteed government attention as numbers had become the meta-narrative of colonial discourse after 1857.
The impact of these statistics and this knowledge is hinted at in the book as it mentions both the Government of India survey into the question of cannabis users of 1871/2 and the Parliamentary Indian Hemp Drugs Commission of 1893/4. However to have followed the cannabis story further would have been out of place in a book that had as its focus the lunatic asylum system of nineteenth century India. The subject of hemp narcotics goes forward into the twentieth century, involves prohibition and economic policy, international law and the League of Nations and indeed still resonates in UK legislation to this day. This is a separate study in itself and while Professor Sen is right to want to know more I am not sure that Madness, Cannabis and Colonialism would have been the place to provide him with the rest of the history of the subject. However, thanks to the funding of the ESRC and the Wellcome Trust for the History of Medicine I am currently engaged in following the cannabis issue generated by the asylums of India beyond the contents of the chapter in the book under consideration here and will publish the results of this research in 2002 with Oxford University Press under the title Cannabis Britannica: the social and political history of cannabis and the British, 1800-1928.
Professor Sen is also right to ask for more on the place of the post-mortem in the generation of colonial knowledge and indeed for wondering about the extent to which Indian conceptions of mental illness informed British constructions of the 'mad' Indian in this period. I more than agree with him that my own references to the post-mortem and indeed David Arnold's examples do not fully satisfy the need to know more about these medical rituals in the colonial system and regret that space in the book did not allow a fuller consideration. The post-mortem in colonial contexts deserves a study in its own right and I hope that the instances that I provide can go some way to stimulating more research into this subject.
As for the relationship between Indian and European conceptions of mental illness and the extent to which there has been cross-fertilisation, again I can only point to further research in the area. I am currently engaged on a research project in conjunction with Professor Sanjeev Jain, a psychiatrist at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurological Sciences at Bangalore and with Professor Purushottama Bilimoria, a philosopher at Deakin University in Melbourne that seeks to explore this very issue. What it is possible to state already is that there are two possible levels on which this cross-fertilisation occurred. First of all at the theoretical level, it seems that by the end of the nineteenth century Indian medical students were beginning to engage with English-language writing on psychiatry and on the mind and were seeking points of contact between Indian and Western conceptions of mental health and mental functioning. These students were the superintendents of asylums by the 1920s and their writings provide fascinating possibilities.
Cross fertilisation may also have occurred in practice rather than in theory. As already stated, the staff at all of the mental hospitals were Indian, and below the sub-Assistant surgeon who was in day-to-day charge of the institutions few would have had any training in Western medical systems. As such the ways in which the instructions of the British superintendent were interpreted and understood may well have been less than perfect and much improvisation seems likely. There therefore remains the possibility that many Indian approaches to mental illness were being mixed in with the incompletely translated British ideas and as such what existed in practice at the asylums was a hybridised psychiatric system. The relationship between Indian and European ideas and conceptions of the mind and its (mal)functioning at both the theoretical and the practical levels promises to be a rich source for exploring the genesis of both colonial and medical discourses.
In short, I am pleased that Professor Sen found the content of the book to be well researched and to be both innovative and valuable and that his major criticisms are of the omissions from the volume rather than of the nature of that which is included. I hope that he can in part be satisfied with my defence that I was very much aware of the omissions that he identifies and in my ongoing research agenda am going some way to investigating the issues that he felt needed to be drawn out in greater detail.
1. R. Whitwell, 'Notes on the Treatment and Management of Lunatics in Jails', in Indian Medical Gazette xxviii, 1894, p. 363.